Nice Guy, Punk Legend
by Buddy Seigal
OC Weekly Feb. 1998
I'd been trying to contact Billy Zoom-former guitarist for X, perhaps the most beloved and respected punk band of the ages-for two months, but my phone calls were unreturned.
A mutual acquaintance intervened but warned me: "Billy has a very dry sense of humor. A lot of people take him the wrong way. He's not an asshole like a lot of people think. But don't be surprised if he makes fun of the way you talk."
I thought this was a most bizarre warning until Zoom finally picked up the phone one day while I was leaving a message on his answering machine.
"I guess I have to talk to you, huh?" he said.
"Well, yeah, that's the basic idea."
"Where are you from?"
"I just moved up here from San Diego."
"That's NOT a San Diego accent."
"Well, uh, I'm originally from New York."
"Upstate," I said. "Syracuse."
"Syracuse, huh? Hmmm. I guess that's a real place."
I would come to find that Zoom hates New Yawk City New Yorkers like a Klansman hates people of color. A curious bigotry to be sure, but a considerable one to Zoom. I briefly wondered if "New Yorker" isn't code for "Jew," but I decided that I was just being paranoid.
You see, among the many rumors shrouding Zoom is one that suggests he left X in 1985 because he had become a Bible-thumping born-again Christian. This proves not to be the case, and Zoom is understandably touchy about the perception.
"It might interest and confuse people to know that I became a Christian the same month that we started X, which was about the time Exene joined the band in '77," he said. "I was a Christian when I was in X; I just wasn't a real good Christian. It's not like I quit X because I became a Christian, which is what a lot of people think. People just like to have stories, so they make things up." I take Zoom's word. In my presence, he joked about the size of his meat (a most impressive slab, if he's to be believed), he made lewd tongue gestures at a picture of the Spice Girls, and he never tearfully thanked Jay-zuz for any accomplishment nor blamed Satan for any downfalls. I decided he's a normal Christian: sincerely devout but no kind of zealot. There are no Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson photos on his walls.
Fast forward to the day I actually meet Zoom: here I am-with our photographer in tow-knocking on the front door of Zoom's house in Orange. It opens a crack. An unfamiliar face peers out at us through Coke-bottle-thick glasses beneath a greasy, silver pompadour. This is my first gander at the Magnificent Bob. Bob is a quirky sidekick, sort of a Kramer-like figure to Zoom, who acts as cheerleader and font of anecdotes throughout the subsequent interview. But for the moment, he is outraged.
"YOU'RE EARLY!" he censures us.
An adorable black puppy pushes its way through the crack to greet us.
"NICE GOING, GUYS! NOW YOU LET THE DOG OUT!" barks the Exquisite Bob.
"Uh, we were told to be here at 10 a.m.," I say to Bob. "We can come back later."
The photographer and I retire to a coffee shop to which the Amazing Bob has thoughtfully directed us. The lens man, reverential of X and shaken by our less-than-hospitable welcome, is as nervous as Jackie Mason at a skinhead convention.
Returning at 10:30, we are ushered into Casa Zoom without further incident. The Wonderful Bob is in a kinder humor now, and he leads us into Zoom's room. There he stands, 6 feet 3 inches of elegant rock stardom. He's 50 but looks closer to 30. Zoom's face is instantly recognizable, a less seedy version of Christopher Walken, all charming, boyish smile, angular cheekbones and huge blue eyes. He seems less scary in person than on the phone.
We take a seat, and I turn on the tape recorder. I soon find that this socially awkward, uneasy guy is maybe the most honest interview subject I've ever spoken with. During the course of the afternoon, he turns off the tape recorder a number of times to slam this person or that, but other than these amusing personal anecdotes, he lays open his soul, seemingly eager to break a public silence of some 13 years. He offers no hype, no Keith Richards-like delusions of rock & roll glory. And he admits that he's part of the long-rumored-now confirmed-X reunion strictly for one reason: "I'm doing it for the money, and I'm doing it to get my name out there so I can do some of the other projects I want to do," he says.
"Wasn't there ever a point where you felt you needed to do this for artistic reasons?" I ask.
Zoom ponders the question and answers in the negative.
"Have you been at any rehearsals with the band and felt like, 'Yeah, it really is good to be doing this again?'" I ask
"Nope. My real goal in life is to be a record producer," he says. "I'm going to use the money I get from X gigs to move my [amp repair] business into a proper shop and build a recording studio, start a production company and a Christian record label, do stuff like that. It helps to have my name out there again."
It's easy to grasp why Zoom is so misunderstood, why so many sensational rumors circulate around him. He's an enigmatic, suspicious figure, naturally cold and wary; yet he's also as honest and intelligent a man as you'll ever meet. His manager, the affable Mike Rouse, has been installed to act as a buffer between Zoom and X's management, which Zoom loathes and distrusts.
Even the name Billy Zoom-of the great noms de guitar, his is deliciously flashy and absurd-seems to contradict whatever really animates the complex, contradictory man behind the handle. He lived the first 24 years of his life as Ty Kindell, son of a big-band saxophonist/clarinetist who planted a love of playing music in sonny boy's heart at a very early age. Somehow, he seems much more Ty Kindell than Billy Zoom.
"My dad started sticking instruments in my hands when I was really little," he says. "I had some violin lessons when I was about 5 and a couple of accordion lessons. I started piano lessons when I was 5 or 6, and I took them for about three years. I started playing guitar in 1954, and at some point, my dad bought me a tenor banjo. I remember taking that to school in the third grade and singing and playing for the class. Then, in the fourth or fifth grade, I started taking lessons on the clarinet, then tenor sax. I was always in the school band, so I used their baritone sax. I was in the marching orchestra and student jazz band."
In all, Zoom plays nine instruments-and he doesn't just fuck around; he's proficient on each. Over the course of our conversation, Zoom plays astonishing guitar (fingerpicking and flatpicking at the same time!) without even looking at the damn thing, peels off Ray Charles-like riffs at the Hammond B3, and blows cool jazz into a flute. It's an astonishing display, and he never gives the impression that he's trying to wow. He just does this stuff.
In 1966, young Kindell set out from his Savannah, Illinois, home to seek fame and fortune. He landed in Davenport, Iowa, and became a member of the Loved Ones, a popular group that toured the Midwest playing soul covers. The nomadic Kindell traveled around the country in the late '60s and early '70s, also putting in stints in Boston and San Francisco before settling into L.A. As a member of Art Wheeler & the Brothers Love on and off from '69 through '72, he backed up the likes of Etta James, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Bobby Day, Johnny Taylor and other soul legends.
"I knew who some of them were, but I didn't really appreciate it all until much later," says Zoom. "If I had my druthers, I'd still be playing R&B. I really liked that. I got out of it in the early '70s, when they started getting into funk. I didn't go there. I didn't do acid, so that whole Parliament/Funkadelic thing got kind of weird for me. I didn't want to wear the pink feathers and stuff."
In 1971, Zoom landed a gig with rockabilly titan Gene Vincent, who had fallen on hard times in the face of the psychedelic era. Rockabilly music was long out of favor, and Vincent had ruined his health with the bottle. But Zoom-a lover of classic rock & roll and R&B forms-knew Vincent was the Man, even if the rest of the world didn't come to appreciate his legacy until long after his death.
"[Vincent] was having trouble getting gigs and wasn't making too much money in those days," Zoom recalls. "Musicians in his band were embarrassed about playing songs like 'Be Bop a Lula' in front of people. They were all a bunch of stupid hippies-you know, 'We don't like his music and we don't know who he is, but he has a name, so we can help our careers by playing a few gigs with him.' He was on the wagon when I played with him. He had a real bad ulcer and couldn't touch a drop. That's what eventually killed him; he got screwed over and went on a bender and died. But when I was playing with him, he was absolutely sober and a real nice guy. The thing I remember him saying the most was, 'I can't believe that somebody who looks like you can play like that.' I still had hair down to my waist and bellbottoms in those days."
Zoom may have looked like a product of his era, but roiling beneath the surface was a nascent punk attitude-a disgust for all the music and fashion excesses of the '60s and '70s. He was a man out of his time, stuck in a place of unparalleled absurdity.
"I liked the Beatles' first two albums, but I hated Sgt. Pepper and The White Album and all that stuff," says Zoom. "I really couldn't stand any of it. The Stones: I liked their first album; I liked them until they started doing their own songs. I liked them when they were doing Willie Dixon and Bobby Womack songs. And '70s music really sucked. I think music sort of died at Woodstock. I think everything between Woodstock and the Ramones is an embarrassment and needs to be erased from the history books. I hated all of that stuff. That's why I started doing rockabilly; I couldn't get into the glam-rock thing. I couldn't get into Peter Frampton and the Eagles and all of that stuff. Creedence was kind of cool, I guess. Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel-I used to go see stuff like that."
By 1972, a makeover was in order, and Ty Kindell became Billy Zoom.
"I had hair down to my waist and little wire-rimmed glasses, and I decided to change my image," he says. "That look wasn't rebellious anymore. All of the people who threw beer cans at me had long hair now; they were rednecks on acid. So I cut my hair real short and bleached it a little bit, and I got really blue contacts. I had this friend named Liz who came over a couple of days after I did that. She just stood there staring at me and said, 'You don't look like you anymore; you don't look like Ty.' And I said, 'Well, who do I look like?' She said, 'You look like your name ought to be Billy Zoom or something!' Then some friends started calling me that, and it just sort of stuck."
Zoom played with a roots band called the Alligators in '72 and '73 before starting up his own rockabilly combo the next year. The Billy Zoom Band recorded on the tiny indie label Rolling Rock Records along with such fellow L.A. revivalists as Johnny Legend and Chuck E. Weiss and such first-string pioneers as Ray Campi, Jackie Lee Cochran and Mac Curtis. Records from these days are nothing short of revelatory: what we know from his days in X is that Zoom can peel off hot licks a la Cliff Gallup and Paul Burlison. But who knew Zoom was also a very good singer? Hearing these old sessions makes one wonder why Zoom never took any lead vocals as a member of X.
There was a rockabilly revival going on in L.A. in the mid-'70s, but its followers were small in number-or, as Zoom succinctly puts it: "You couldn't give rockabilly away in those days. Nobody really cared about it until years later, after the Stray Cats and all that happened."
Zoom was still searching for something new to conquer, and he finally found his niche in 1976. "My bass player, Patrick Woodward, read me this review in some magazine where they were trashing the Ramones," Zoom recollects. "It said the songs were too fast and too short, too simple; they had stupid lyrics; no guitar solos; no Eagles, no Doobie Brothers, no anything. I said, 'That sounds good to me!' So I was curious, and I went to see the Ramones, and it just kind of clicked for me. It was like rockabilly turned on 10. It seemed like that was gonna take off, so I thought: 'You know, I should start something like this-take what they've done and move it a step further, make it slightly more musical, but not enough to wreck it.'"
Zoom placed an ad looking for musicians in the Recycler, and a punk dynasty was born. The first person to respond was a singing bassist named John Doe. The two got together to jam and soon found they were of a kindred musical spirit, even if Doe wasn't nearly Zoom's match as a musician. Listening to tapes of these early rehearsals, you can feel the energy coursing through the air in that room like razor-clawed atmosphere creatures straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.
Particularly interesting was their take on Carl Perkins' "Honey Don't" that Doe sings a la Lou Reed while Zoom's guitar blazes like Johnny Ramone's-while retaining his essential mastery of technique. Zoom might have made a conscious decision to go punk, but there was no hiding his sophistication as a musician. This was no noble primitive.
After a few months, Doe started bringing his friend Exene Cervenka to rehearsals. She wrote material for them; Doe encouraged her to sing it. Untrained and something less than a sensational vocalist, Cervenka nonetheless wrote intriguing songs and had undeniable charisma, and her chemistry with Doe was something special.
"I was kind of reluctant about it to begin with, but she ended up in the band, and it worked out good," says Zoom. "I remember one of our first gigs with her: the crowd went nuts for Exene; they were all chanting her name. So I said, 'Yeah, well, this must be okay.'"
The final piece of the puzzle was in place when drummer D.J. Bonebrake joined the group in 1978. "I had a standing joke that I wanted a drummer who played simply and used a parade snare. Then John called me from the Masque one night and said, 'Billy, there's a drummer here who's got a parade snare, and he's really good.' He held the phone up for me to listen to him, and I said, 'Find out what he wants and promise it to him-major recording deal, free pizza, whatever it takes. Lie to him-just get him.'"
X spearheaded the L.A. punk movement of the late '70s, working nightclubs like the Masque. The scene was small and a bit late compared with what had already transpired in New York and London, but such groups as the Go-Go's (a legitimate punk band years before anybody heard "We Got the Beat"), the Germs, the Alley Cats, the Plugz and the Controllers made LA an intriguing center of punk in its own right-at least for a while.
"The best thing was the media weren't jumping on it yet," says Zoom. "There was this group of people who weren't going aboveground-the underground thing was growing by leaps and bounds. It was huge-well, relatively huge. It was a really nice scene for a couple of years. Everybody knew each other and helped each other out. I still think that X's peak was in '78, '79, before we put records out. That was the zenith of our career, when we were playing at the Hong Kong and Club 88. It was great".
"I think the term 'punk' meant something until the Sex Pistols hit and the media jumped on it," he continues. "I liked their album okay, but I didn't like all the Malcolm McLaren B.S. that went along with it. I didn't like the way kids in the boonies read about it and said, 'Let's go to Hollywood and go to a punk show and raise hell like it says we should do here in the paper.' That sort of ruined the scene for a lot of people. The more the media got into it, the more they defined it. I was comfortable with [X being called a punk band] until that came to mean making a lot of noise and spitting on people. I was put off by all that."
Whether Zoom liked it or not, more and more people were jumping on the bandwagon; punk had become a force in the worldwide music biz. X were signed to Slash Records and released their first album, Los Angeles, in 1980; it was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
It was apparent from that first album that this was no ordinary punk band. Doe and Cervenka wrote material that went over the heads of many scenesters, intelligent songs lyrically imbued with the sensibility of beat poetry and sung with a respect for and knowledge of American musical traditions. Their harmonies were eerie and unique-if not always what you'd call easy on the ears. On a bad night, Doe and Cervenka could sound like the Jefferson Airplane on Quaaludes, but when their vocals clicked, the effect was hypnotic and spellbinding, a mantra of curiously compelling despair.
X immediately became critical darlings, but while endless accolades were heaped upon the heads of Doe and Cervenka, Zoom's contributions to the group were largely overlooked. His evil, stinging guitar tones, those metal-meets-rockabilly-meets-R&B solos and chord voicings were at least equally responsible for the band's success, both artistically and commercially."I've always thought about what I could put into a song to make it different and special," says Zoom. "And I've always thought about what I could play that would make the singer sound better."
Dave Alvin, the former Blasters' axe man who ultimately replaced Zoom, is a renowned guitar hotshot in his own right, but he soon learned that stepping into Zoom's cowboy boots was no easy task. "I was amazed when I had to actually sit down and learn 32 songs in two weeks," says Alvin. "How Billy Zoom put his parts together was amazing. For a three-piece band, his orchestration on guitar was really tremendous. They were almost mathematically perfect arrangements. Billy likes tinkering with machines and electronics, and in some ways, his guitar parts are put together like schematics. I'm more of a primitive. I lack that kind of technique, and Billy was very, very advanced. I learned a lot; my guitar playing improved a lot after I had to sit down and learn all of his parts. There's a part of me that's forever in his debt, from having my Billy Zoom guitar lessons. A lot of punk bands-a lot of any bands-don't have these kind of intelligent guitar parts. That guy is really good."
Another thing Zoom brought to the table was his detached, ultracool image-the spread-legged stance, the expressionless face, the silver Gretsch guitar and silver leather jacket, the bleached-white pompadour. Zoom always looked, well, different from the rest of the band. His body language seemed to say, "I'm here, but I'm not really a part of this."
"A lot of what I did in X was making fun of '70s music,"
says Zoom with a laugh.
By 1985, X had released four more acclaimed albums, but times had changed, and Zoom was tiring of the game and the grind. The band had grown more self-consciously arty, and there were inevitable creative and personal differences, the physical toll of life on the road, and the resulting meth abuse.
"Being in a band is sort of like being married to three people, without the good parts, without the sex," says Zoom. "There was always stuff that wouldn't have been there if it had been up to me, songs we wouldn't have played. I don't know if I would have listened to X if I wasn't playing in it. I just couldn't stand it another day. We were on the road seven or eight months out of the year, locked in a recording studio two or three months out of the year, and the rest of the time, we were rehearsing. I think I went four years without a single day off, where I didn't have to be somewhere for some kind of business meeting or interview or something.
"I told them a year and a half beforehand that I'd make the next album and tour to support the album, but if things didn't work out, if this album didn't sell a lot more than the other ones, I'm out. Then I told them again at the beginning of the tour. It wasn't a sudden thing; they knew I was leaving. We were asked by the managers not to talk in interviews about me leaving-they wanted us to talk about the album. So to the public, it was a sudden thing."
And so Zoom left X amid rumors and speculation of acrimony. The band played on, toured and released a number of albums for various labels, but it was never the same; the essential chemistry was never recaptured. Doe and Cervenka seemed more inspired by solo projects than their work with X, which remained X in name only. Zoom played a few solo gigs to pay the rent. He busied himself by concentrating on Billy Zoom Music, the amplifier shop he runs out of his home (by all accounts, he's an excellent technician). He cleaned up and became sober, and he got deeper into Christianity-two subjects on which he'll say almost nothing. He finally quit the music business altogether, except for doing guitar-for-hire work on recordings by johnny-come-lately punk bands. "I've gotten a lot of session work lately for local bands doing X covers because there's at least one chord in every X song that nobody can figure out," he says.
It is one of many seeming contradictions about Zoom that, for all of his eremitic tendencies, you'll find his phone number listed in the OC directory. He's not what you'd call a warm and fuzzy guy, but he's likable enough, a thoughtful conversationalist even while remaining prickly and sarcastic-no small trick.
Next year,Gretsch guitars will be marketing a Billy Zoom model, the creation and production of which Zoom will personally oversee-unlike most celeb guitar endorsements, which are simply slapped together and sold with a signature embedded on the pick guard. Of this accomplishment, Zoom seems eminently proud.The last question I ask him: "When you sit back and think about the accomplishments X made, doesn't that make you feel good? Doesn't it make you proud to know that there will be a chapter about your band in the rock & roll history books? That you've inspired so many people to start up bands of their own?"
Zoom grimaces as if he were just force-fed a spoonful of maggots. He thinks it over for a bit and replies, "There's a little bit of 'What have I started?' to all of that. I don't know. It's nice that . . . I don't know how to answer that. . . . There are a lot of people I don't care for who have cited X as an influence. But then there are some I like, too."
Zoom poses for pictures, flashing a million-dollar smile that he knows could charm the stink off a pile of dog shit. He shows us pictures of his family and of him playing in all of the bands we've discussed. It's a little bit like seeing a microcosm of 20th-century American-music history: Dad in blackface with a minstrel band, a western group, a swing orchestra; 12-year-old Kindell wearing Buddy Holly shades, in a Beatles haircut, as the only white guy in a soul revue, as a hippie with hair down to his waist, as a latter-day rockabilly; and finally with X as the primal punk guitarist. He shows us his amp studio, wherein a T-shirt hangs on the wall, emblazoned with a rock-god picture and the words "BILLY ZOOM-NICE GUY, PUNK LEGEND."
Mike the manager and the Fabulous Bob seem to want to impress upon me that this tongue-in-cheek casualwear bears the Truth about Billy Zoom. However, I don't need their prompting. I've already decided that, yes, Zoom really is a nice guy, despite the walls he builds around himself.
Going one-on-one with Zoom takes no small reserves of energy, and I left his home feeling exhausted. It was thrust and parry all afternoon. I'd try to sneak in a question about his religious beliefs; he'd get a look of profound annoyance and go silent. I'd try to identify some feeling-positive or negative-about the whole X experience, but he never would admit the reunion was anything more than a calculated business venture. And all through the day was the nagging sensation that Zoom was evaluating me as much as I was trying to figure him out. It's impossible to relax in his presence.
Still, unvarnished moments of love and humanity shone through the layers of ice. No one had asked to see pictures of his parents, but he volunteered them, including a 1940 photo of his mother on a 4-cylinder Indian motorcycle.Then there's the puppy, Sasha. The dog was at his side as he played the organ; his hand absent-mindedly stroked her head as he told his story.
I know Zoom's musical history now, but not his personal one. Some would say he masks unspoken hurts with hostility; others that he's simply an asshole. I'm no shrink, and I don't think he's an asshole. What I'm left with is the notion that while I like and respect this guy, I would not want to be Billy Zoom: life's too short and sweet to shoulder such an apparently weighty task.